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Science Olympiad: More Than Just A Competition

SOCORRO, N.M. February 16, 2016 – More than 600 bright young students from every corner of New Mexico will put their brains to work in Socorro during the state Science Olympiad on Saturday, Feb. 20.

The New Mexico Tech campus will be abuzz with youngsters in lab coats in almost every building on campus. The bright, ambitious teenagers have spent the entire school year preparing for this day. They will be putting their brains to the test, but they are also representing their schools and trying to win a championship.

High school and middle school students compete as teams for individual and team honors in competitions ranging from astrophysics, bridge building, robotics, fossil identification and genetics. Science Olympiad is a rare event that tests students’ knowledge and generates team spirit, camaraderie and the pursuit of excellence.

“More than anything, Science Olympiad is a competition,” Director Rose Baca said. “These kids are very competitive. They look for every angle and anything they can find to get an edge. You really see that competitive spirit at the awards ceremony. There’s just as much shouting, school pride and excitement as you would see at a sporting event.”

Science Olympiad also exposes youngsters to science and engineering who might not otherwise get interested.

 “Students get a hands-on experience with robotics or bridge building and they develop an interest,” Baca said. “We reach out to kids who might not be exposed to this in a classroom.”

Albuquerque Academy and Albuquerque Area Home Schools are the perennial favorites to win. Socorro, Sandia, Hobbs and Cloudcroft are perennial contenders to dethrone the champs. This year, 25 middle school and 25 high school teams will compete.

Each team can have up to 15 “intelletes,” with a maximum of seven seniors. Teams compete in 24 events, most of which include two or three students. Each individual will compete in three to five different events over the course of the event.

The annual New Mexico Science Olympiad is much more than an academic team competition. The team event also serves as a productive recruiting tool for New Mexico Tech. Prior to visiting Socorro for Science Olympiad, most high school students in the state are unfamiliar with the student opportunities at Tech. Science Olympiad gave many of today’s Techies their first exposure to the academic and research advantages that Tech offers. Dozens of current students first considered Tech after taking part in Science Olympiad. Even for students who do not enroll at Tech, many of them decided to pursue an education in science or engineering because of Science Olympiad.

Tony Ortiz is the former Science Olympiad coordinator and current Director of Admissions at Tech. He said the program is naturally an excellent recruiting tool because Science Olympians – or “intelletes” – are the type of students who excel as college students at Tech.

“These students are involved in science, engineering and research even before they come to college,” Ortiz said. “Science Olympiad gives us the chance to show off our campus and let students know what opportunities are available at Tech.”

Because the hundreds of “intelletes” are focused on the competition during the one-day event and have precious little time to tour academic departments, Ortiz doesn’t try to turn the competition into a heavy recruiting tool. He uses a soft approach.

“We try to make their experience on campus a good one,” Ortiz said. “Many students compete in Science Olympiad year after year and become familiar with Tech and our people. We want them to have a positive experience and enjoy themselves.”

Competitors hustle to various events in the gym, the playing field, auditoriums and classrooms. Each team sets up a home base in various lounges, corridors and sitting areas on campus. For those who return year after year, they get fairly familiar with the New Mexico Tech campus. The day closes with a raucous awards presentation that resembles a multi-school pep assembly.

“Science Olympiad gives us an opportunity to showcase Tech,” Ortiz said. “We want to maximize our exposure and have these students leave with good memories.”

Most of the competitions are judged by professors and graduate students, giving prospective students the opportunity to interact with current collegians.

“Science Olympiad is important for Tech and important for New Mexico,” Ortiz said. “We show children that science can be fun and that problem-solving can be exciting.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech